How to Plant, Grow and Care For Aloe Vera
Looking to add some Aloe Vera to your indoor or outdoor garden? This particular plant is quite popular and has a wide variety of uses. In this article, gardening expert Emily Horn walks through every step you'll need to follow in order to plant, grow, and care for Aloe Vera.
If you have been considering indoor gardening as a hobby, look no further than aloe vera as your next, or even first, addition to your houseplant collection. Aloe vera is one of the easiest plants to grow indoors for the houseplant novice.
Not only is Aloe Vera low-maintenance, but also doubles as a natural treatment for scrapes and scratches to sunburns and dry skin. This tried-and-true plant with its famous leaves containing the yellow-green slime-like ooze has earned its keep as one of the most popular houseplants of all time.
Requiring bright light and for you to leave it alone, aloe vera is very capable of caring for itself, with only an occasional watering from its owner. If overwatering and freezing temperatures can be avoided, aloe vera will be part of your houseplant collection for many years to come. Let’s see what it takes to grow aloe in your home!
Aloe Vera Plant Overview
Plant Type Succulent
Species Aloe barbadensis miller
Native Area Africa
Exposure Full to Partial Sun
Height 1-3 feet
Watering Requirements Low
Pests Aphids, Mealybugs, Scale
Soil Type Well-Draining Succulent Mix
Hardiness Zones 10-11
About Aloe Vera
The genus Aloe contains more than 500 species of plants. Originating from the desert regions of the Mediterranean, as well as the mysterious island of Madagascar, the physical growing conditions are about the only thing consistent with the vast majority of these medicinal beauties.
As extraordinary as this genus is, the plant that comes to mind when the word aloe is spoken, more times than not, is the beloved Aloe vera, or the common aloe.
Aloe with its thick, fleshy, succulent leaves, edged in serrated teeth like spikes, form an impressive rosette around an equally notable stem. As members of the rather large Liliaceae family, which also include species such as tulips and the cast-iron plant.
However, with modern technological advances in plant cell arrangements, aloe vera has recently been placed in the Asphodelaceae family, though both families are still considered correct.
Aloe vera’s origins are difficult to determine because it is found in so many different geographic areas of the world. However, some of the earliest depictions can be seen in Ancient Egyptian temple drawings dating back to 2,200 BC.
In addition to Egypt, Greek and Roman scholars often referred to the aloe vera plant as the “plant of immortality” using various parts of the plant medicinally to treat ailments.
Even the Bible mentions aloe vera in its texts. Given the location of Egypt, Greece, and Israel on the map, it is fair to say that it is native to northern Africa.
Aloe vera, a rosette pattern of thick, green to blue serrated leaves, are firm, yet squishy to the touch, surrounding short, squatty stems that reach 18-24” in height at maturity.
This squishiness is the gel-like substance within the leaf tissues, which aids in the water retention capabilities so desperately needed for survival in the arid, drought-ridden desert conditions it calls home.
Resting during our summer months, aloe actively grows fall through spring, often producing yellow-orange flowers that add bright colors to drab winter days. Keep in mind that it will take a bit of extra work to get Aloe Vera blooming indoors, rather than in their native outdoor habitat.
This plant is very forgiving and is considered a low-maintenance house plant. It can thrive on neglect and less than perfect living conditions, with its only true nemesis being overwatering.
How to Grow
There are many considerations when growing succulents, such as aloe, for them to thrive in your home. Proper potting mix, optimal lighting conditions, the right amount of water and technique, and the correct pot selection are just a few. Read on to find out what it takes to grow aloe.
When it comes to light, bright is best. South-facing windows are ideal, although eastern and western windows will provide the necessary amount of light to keep your aloe healthy. Ideally, 6 hours or more of bright light is considered a high light or full sun location.
However, do not confuse bright light with full sun. Bright light is a location that does not receive sun rays shining directly down upon the plant. Rather, the plant is located near a window that receives intense light, but is not directly being hit by the sun’s rays.
This is important, especially during the summer months in the northern hemisphere. Although a houseplant, aloe vera does go through a dormant, or rest period, during the summer months.
During this rest period, aloe is not actively growing. Aloe vera still needs light, but if it were to have the direct sun rays beating down on it for 6 or more hours each day, you run the risk of your aloe getting a sunburn…which is sort of ironic given aloe vera gel being used to ease the pain of sunburns.
Many people like to take their houseplants outdoors during the summer months, and aloe can go outdoors with the rest of the plants. But, it is important to acclimate any houseplants to the weather “extremes” they can encounter outdoors.
It’s unlikely your aloe endures wind gusts, rainstorms, or even the occasional bird landing on it inside your house. To assist your houseplants to adjust to the great outdoors, you will need to slowly introduce them to the new environment. For the first 2-3 days, place your aloe vera is a shaded location.
As evening nears, bring your aloe vera back inside for the night. Gradually introduce your aloe to more and more outdoor sunlight every 2-3 days until it is in its final location. The overall transition to being outside takes about 7-10 days overall. Once in its final spot, there is no need to bring your aloe indoors at night.
Aloe vera can easily adjust to living within our normal household air temperatures. Ideally, around 80 degrees is preferred by these desert dwellers. However, it can withstand temperatures as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Temperatures below 50 degrees can cause cold damage to your plant. If you like to take your aloe plants outside for the summer months, be sure to watch the nighttime temperatures as fall approaches.
At temperatures below 50 degrees, aloe plants will begin to drop leaves, leaves may become soft and mushy, stems can collapse or even plant death may happen.
Temperature is one of the environmental conditions that directly influence the frequency of watering. An aloe kept at 60 degrees Fahrenheit will not need to be watered as often as an aloe kept at 80 degrees.
At lower temperatures, water uptake will be less. Your aloe vera will still need water to photosynthesize its food, but just not at the same frequency as a plant kept at 80 degrees.
Aloe vera is a succulent plant. Aloe vera is not considered cacti, but it has some similar properties. Succulents and cacti have special plant adaptations that allow them to store excess water in their leaf and stem tissues. This is imperative to their survival.
In a desert, there is little rainfall over the course of a year. So many succulents and cacti may only get one or two times a year to get as much water as they can to survive.
Because water is the most valuable asset in the desert, many succulents and cacti have additional adaptations of spikes, spines, or thorns to protect this precious water reserve from other desert inhabitants. Now that you know about the basic anatomy of the plant, you can use that knowledge as a tool to water your houseplant correctly.
“It’s Wednesday, time to water my plants” is an all-too-common occurrence in the plant world. Although intentions are good, watering your plants on a set schedule is detrimental to plant growth, sometimes even fatal.
There is no set schedule when it comes to watering your aloe plant. The frequency of watering is determined by the plant and the environment the plant lives in. For example, if the aloe is in a time of active growth, water will be needed more often. Living in bright sunlight compared to a shady location will require more frequent watering.
When Should You Water Aloe?
It canbe tough to figure out how often aloe needs to be watered. You can always use a moisture meter to determine how wet your soil is. By inserting a probe into the soil inside the pot, the meter can measure the amount of electrical activity within the soil.
The moisture meter will give you an analog reading on a scale at the top of the meter. When soils are moist, more electricity is generated. Although there is electric conductivity inside your potting mix, there is no need to worry about getting a jolt. The amount of electricity is minute.
The soil surface of your aloe plant may look dry, and it very well could be dry. But how dry is it down around the roots of the plant? A rather inexpensive way to check the moisture of your soil is to insert your index finger inside the potting mix.
By placing your finger in the soil as deep as you can, you can feel how wet the soil is at the root zone. If you can feel dampness at the tip of your finger, the soil is plenty wet and there is no need to water. Dry? Give your aloe a thorough watering.
What is Thorough Watering?
Thorough watering is when you water your plant from the top of the soil and allow the water to come out of the bottom of the pot. This is also where we see how important it is to use well-draining soil when planting aloe.
It may seem like too much water, especially for a desert plant like aloe. However, a thorough watering allows the plant to absorb as much water as it needs, with a little reserve remaining in the soil for later.
Selecting a container for your aloe is important. It’s more than just picking a pretty pot. Container materials, size, and drainage are all things to consider when selecting a home for your aloe.
Terracotta and other unglazed clay pots are good for growing aloe vera for a few reasons. Terracotta is a porous material, meaning air and water can exchange through the walls of your pot. This will allow your aloe to dry out slightly should you make the mistake of overwatering your plant.
Secondly, terracotta is heavy. When your mature aloe vera plant has a generous amount of thick healthy leaves, the plant is going to be top-heavy. And if placed in a plastic pot, your whole plant will fall over. The weight of the terracotta will help counterbalance the weight of the plant.
If you do not like the look of clay or terracotta pots, you can always place the clay pot inside a more decorative catch pot. This way your aloe can have proper drainage, and you can achieve your desired aesthetics.
There is nothing wrong with planting your aloe in a plastic pot. Terracotta and clay pots are more expensive than plastic pots. If you do choose to plant in plastic, be sure to pick a pot that has good drainage and is sturdy enough to support the weight of your plant.
Regardless of the type of materials your pot is made of, the size of the pot is also important to keep your aloe happy and healthy. If you have aloe in a pot that needs repotting, look at the diameter of the current pot (you can usually find the diameter on the underside of a pot) and go up one size for the new pot.
For example, your aloe is currently planted in a 6” diameter pot and its time to move into a bigger pot, the next size up from a 6” pot is an 8” pot. If you move your aloe to a pot larger than an 8”, you run the risk of the soil staying too wet around your aloe’s roots.
Because the plant is small and the pot is big, it can only take up so much water. The surrounding soil will hold on to the water whether or not the plant needs it. This cold, wet soil is an open invitation to root rot, stem rot, and other fungal pathogens.
Many times, in the houseplant world, the words drainage and wet, soppy mess often come to mind. Water leaking out of the pot, getting carpets wet, and giving side tables water rings, is one of the dirty parts of living with houseplants (go to the garden center and buy a plastic saucer to catch extra water. Or visit a thrift store to buy some dinner plates to use as saucers.)
But drainage is essential for your aloe to survive. Drainage allows for excess water to exit the bottom of your pot. If there is no drainage, the aloe will sit in water. Sitting in water for long periods of time can cause a lack of oxygen in a plant’s root zone. Without this oxygen, roots will drown. And without a healthy root system, the top of your aloe plant will also suffer.
One caveat to drainage holes is soil leaching from the bottom of the pot, especially with sandy cactus potting mixes. To decrease the amount of soil exiting the pot, you can place a piece of window screen on the inside of the pot, covering the drainage holes, prior to filling with soil. This allows water to drain but holds most of the soil in.
Another option is using shards of broken terracotta pots. At our greenhouse facility, we accidentally break terracotta pots all the time. Find a shard from a broken pot and carefully place the shard over the hole(s) in your container. Again, this will block soil from leaving the pot, while allowing water to escape.
The type of soil used for your aloe plant can help with maintaining proper drainage. Using a commercially available desert potting mix is a great option and well suited for aloe plants.
These soils contain fine peat moss or compost, which hold on to water as well as provide nutrients to your aloe, as well as other amendments like perlite, which is the white crunchy rocks you find in soilless mixes.
Perlite is a volcanic rock that has been heated to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. When the volcanic rock heats to this temperature, it pops, like popcorn. When used in potting mixes, the perlite creates little air pockets, promoting drainage within the soil. Other additives like pumice and sand are also helpful in maintaining a balanced moisture level.
When potting your aloe, make sure you leave some headspace at the top of your container. Most pots have a “lip” or ring around the top, roughly a ½” down. This lip is important when determining how full to fill your pot with soil.
By leaving this headspace, you can thoroughly water your aloe plant. This ½” of space gives you room to add water to the top without the soil running over the sides of the pot.
Fertilizers are composed of salts, and if too much salt is in the soil, roots can get salt burn (if you live in a cold region and notice grass and small shrubs that live near sidewalks, driveways, or parking lots are brown in the early spring, they probably have salt damage from sidewalk deicers.)
Aloe vera prefers soil with poor nutrients. So even though you think you are doing the right thing by providing your plant with nutrition via fertilizers, you may be doing more harm than good.
For the plant hobbyist, propagation of new plants can be done easiest vegetatively. Vegetative propagation uses a part of an existing plant to grow new plants. Aloe vera can be propagated by removing pups from a mother plant or using a single leaf petiole to grow an entirely new plant.
Pups, or offsets, are the first vegetative way we’ll discuss propagating aloe vera plants. Pups from off the roots or stems of mature mother plants. Some pups will easily break off from the mother plant. Others need a little assistance.
Using a clean knife or pruners, gently snip the offset from the mother plant, as close to the base as possible. Allow your pup to air dry for 2-3 days. During this drying process, the cut surface will form a callus or scab. This callus will help prevent diseases from entering the new plantlet.
After callusing has happened, prepare a clean, well-draining pot with new cactus soil for your baby aloe vera plant. Be sure the pot is not too big to prevent the potential for overwatering. Water the soil thoroughly, to the point of water running out the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
Next, place the pup on the soil surface. If you would like to dip the cut end in a commercial rooting hormone, this is the time to do so, although it is not needed for successful propagation. Gently press the pup into the soil, callus end down, making sure the plantlet has direct contact with the soil. You may need to add additional soil to create solid contact.
Place the pot in a window with bright light and check often for water. Since the pup has no root system yet, the pup may require more water initially compared to an established aloe vera plant.
You can use a single leaf to grow an aloe vera plant as well. Using clean gardening tools, remove an older, exterior leaf from its base at the stem of the mother plant. Again, like the pup method, you will allow the cut end to callus over before sticking the leaf, callus end down, into a pot of moist potting mix.
Place in a window with bright light and regularly check for water. Remember that the leaf is without a root system to suck up needed water from the soil, so keeping the soil moist, but not wet, will help keep the leaf from drying out.
Although aloe vera is relatively low maintenance, problems can arise from time to time. Insects and diseases are always a possibility with growing plants, and the aloe is no exception to this fact of life.
Aloes are fortunate to only have a few six-legged friends that can cause some havoc. Generally, the three main insect pests are mealybug, scale insect, and aphids.
Mealybugs and Scale
Mealybugs are white, almost fuzzy-looking six-legged insects that are often found on the underside of leaves or at leaf nodes on plant stems. Depending on the species of mealybug, you may also notice a long tail sticking out of one end. Female mealybugs will lay egg sacs containing hundreds of eggs that resemble the tip of a cotton swab.
Scale insects are small, brown to black helmet-shaped pests that are typically found on the underside of leaves, along leaf veins, and at the leaf nodes on stems. Female scale insects can reproduce rather quickly, sometimes even without mating, and may lay their eggs underneath their own protective shell to assist in survival.
Mealybugs and scales have mouths that will suck the sap out of plant tissues. With a heavy infestation or if infested for a long period of time, the plant tissue will wilt. Many times, this wilt is the first symptom of something not being right with your aloe.
If you touch the leaf, you will notice the wet substance is sticky. This sticky, wet-looking substance is called honeydew. Honeydew is the fancy name for insect poop. Plant sap is made of sugar. When a mealybug or scale insect eats plant sap, the excrement produced is sticky. Hence the sticky honeydew on the leaf surfaces.
Aphids, a distant relative to mealybugs and scale, work in a similar fashion. The mouthparts of aphids are slightly different though. Aphids have what are called piercing-sucking mouths.
The aphid will puncture the plant tissue, and after the hole is made, will begin sucking out the sap. After the sap-sucking feast, honeydew will begin to form.
When honeydew is present, there is a possibility of sooty mold forming. Sooty mold is a black powdery fungus that uses honeydew as a food source. Sooty mold does not directly kill a plant.
Rather, because the sooty mold covers the leaf surface, the amount of surface area a leaf has to make food is decreased. If the plant cannot make adequate food, the plant will gradually die.
Fortunately, controlling pest insects like mealybugs, scale and aphids is the same. If there is a small insect population, you can dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and swab the insects with the alcohol.
For larger infestations, the use of insecticidal soap or Neem oil may be necessary. Be sure to follow the label directions. The label will tell you whether you can use the product on cacti and succulents as well as how frequently to apply the product.
Root Rot and Fungus
Fungus is a biological agent. But, more times than not, the fungus issues affiliated with aloe vera are a direct result of improper cultural techniques used to care for it in the first place. Root and stem rots are caused by fungus.
However, overwatering creates the ideal environment for these fungi to flourish. If overwatering is avoided, the conditions are not favorable for the fungus, so it is kept at bay.
If you suspect your aloe has fallen victim to root rot, invert the plant and inspect the roots. Healthy aloe root tissue is thick, firm and white. If the roots appear brown, yellow or are soft, chances are root rot is happening. You may also notice droopy leaves, or your plant falling over.
If you are brave, smell the roots. Does it smell like stagnant water? If you answer yes, rot is happening on some level. The roots should not have any odor or should smell similar to the potting mix.
Solutions for Root Rot or Fungus
You can attempt to salvage your aloe by repotting it in fresh soil. Reusing soil can infect your aloe with other diseases and possible insect pests. If you choose to repot in the same pot, you will need to clean your pot prior to replanting.
If you do not clean the pot, the spores of the fungus will persist on the interior of the pot. By placing a stressed out aloe in a pot that already has fungal spores, you’re pretty much sealing the death certificate on your plant.
You will want to remove any damaged or rotting roots from your aloe vera plant prior to replanting. To prune off dead or diseased leaves, first, you will want to sanitize your tools. Pour rubbing alcohol over the blades of your pruners, carefully wiping clean with a paper towel. With the clean pruners, remove any discolored or damaged roots.
Once you’ve cleaned up the rootstock, plant your aloe in its new or cleaned pot, being sure to plant the aloe at the same planting depth it was planted before. If you plant the aloe deeper than it was previously planted, water can pool around the stems, and now you have created another potential rot spot.
Frequently Asked Questions
How often should I water my aloe vera plant?
Simple answer is when it needs it. Seriously though, there is no definitive answer to how often any houseplant should be watered, and aloe is no exception. Air temperatures, light exposure, the size of the plant, size of the container, type of soil all factor into how often to water the aloe.
The best way to see if your plant needs water is to stick your finger in the pot. Insert your finger into the soil as far as it will go. If the soil feels damp at the tip of your finger, you do not need to water it. When it feels dry, it’s time for a thorough watering (watering the top of the pot until water exits the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot).
If you are uncomfortable sticking your finger inside your pot, you can press down on the soil surface as well. Although not as accurate in determining how wet the soil is at the rootzone, you can still determine if the soil is wet or dry and decide on whether to water.
Should I fertilize my aloe?
There seems to be some debate on whether aloe vera needs to be fertilized. Some say it thrives on neglect, where others suggest annual fertilization is okay.
If you choose to fertilize, cactus and succulent fertilizers are easy options and have low concentrations of nitrogen, which will decrease the likelihood of salt burning to plant tissues.
Another area of ambiguity is when to fertilize your aloe. Generally, you fertilize plants prior to their active growing season. This way the nutrients are ready and waiting for your plant to take up what it needs when it’s time to grow. Many plants are dormant in the winter months, meaning a late winter feeding is the best time to fertilize prior to spring growth beginning. BUT aloe vera is a summer dormant plant, meaning it rests during the summer and begins active growth in the autumn. So in my opinion, aloe vera needs to be fertilized in late summer so when the aloe comes out of dormancy in the fall, it’s got the food it needs to thrive right at its root tips.
Is aloe vera poisonous?
Aloe vera is not poisonous, although very bitter to the taste as I accidentally discovered by not properly washing my hands after showing some elementary school visitors the yellow green gelatinous goop. However, as with anyconsumable, too much may cause some digestive distress. The plant contains a compound called aloin, which is often used as a laxative to treat digestion issues.
What is the difference between aloe and agave?
With over 400 varieties of aloe, and more than 250 varieties of agave, telling the two apart can be difficult at times. Generally speaking, aloe and agave are similar in shape and size, color, and prefer similar living environments. However, there are some easy ways to tell the difference between aloes and agaves.
Leaf structure is vastly different between aloe and agave. Aloe has thicker, fleshier leaves that are squishy when squeezed between your fingers. If you try to remove an aloe leaf with your bare hands, the leaf will tear from the stem, exposing an ooze of gelatinous, yellowish-green goop. The outer leaf margin of aloe plants is toothed with spikes, though the spikes are relatively soft to the touch.
In contrast, agave leaves are thinner than aloe, with a tough, fibrous interior that is impossible to tear without a knife or other bladed object. The outside edge of the agave plant is rimmed with sharp, pointed spikes, which are razor sharp and can easily puncture surrounding plants or animals if brushed up against. The agave leaves are so fibrous that the strong threads from inside the leaf can be used for weaving rugs.
Other differences between the two genera include their native habitats, flowering pattern, and dormant periods. Although both aloe and agave are desert plants, aloe is indigenous to areas in South Africa and Madagascar whereas agave is native to the Americas. Flowering habits are drastically different as well.
Aloe is a polycarpic plant, meaning it blooms repeatedly over its lifetime. Agave, on the other hand, is a monocarpic plant; one and done so to speak. And by done, the mother plant dies once blooming has occurred. Dormant periods vary in aloe and agave, which plays a role in flowering time as well. Dormancy, in short, is a rest period, and often occurs in the wintertime for most plants.
Agave is a plant that undergoes dormancy during the winter. In contrast, aloe is a summer dormant plant, so active growth slows down during the summer months, and resumes in the fall. Because of the different dormant periods, when agave does bloom, it blooms in the late spring/early summer and aloe flowers in late winter/early spring.
With their many medicinal uses, as well as their excellent adaptibilty to indoor condiions, aloe vera plants are quite easy additions to any houseplant collection. They make great beginner-friendly plants that anyone starting out in gardening can care for. You won’t be disappointed with growing these simple succulents in your home!